Childhood & Early Years
Betty Williams was born on 22 May 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland as Elizabeth Smyth. Her father was a butcher by profession and Protestant by faith; while her Catholic mother was a homemaker. Williams was the oldest child of her parents, and she grew up with a younger sister named Maggie.
Since her childhood, Williams had the greatest regard for her father. While talking about him, Betty said in an interview, “He would say, ‘I don’t care if you murdered someone, I hope you never do, but you can come home and tell me all about it.’ He was that kind of guy.”
With sectarian violence raging through the country, life was not easy for the inhabitants of Northern Ireland. Much before Williams’s birth, her grandfather, who was a Protestant, was attacked. He was thrown into the hold of an under-construction ship because his son was marrying a Catholic.
Williams grew up in the Andersonstown neighborhood of Belfast, populated mostly by Catholics. While her family background instilled religious tolerance in her, she developed a certain amount of sympathy for the Irish Republican Army as she was growing up among Catholics.
Although she was sympathetic to IRA, her natural compassion for human beings did not allow her to become blind to the atrocities committed by them. Once, she saw an injured British soldier and ran down to help him. Upon witnessing this, her Catholic neighbors chided her for helping ‘an enemy’.
One of her cousins was gunned down by Protestant extremists in front of his house. In the same year, she lost another cousin when a nearby car was booby-trapped by Catholic extremists. Both deaths affected her greatly.
After completing her elementary education at St. Teresa Primary School in Belfast, Williams enrolled in St. Dominic’s School for her secondary education. When she turned 13, her mother suffered a stroke and became incapacitated. As the eldest child of the family, she now became responsible for her sister while she was also continuing her schooling.
After completing her formal education, Williams began working as a receptionist at an office in Belfast. In 1961, she got married to Ralph Williams and gave birth to a son and a daughter shortly after that.
She continued to work as an office receptionist while raising her two children. Just like any other woman, she loved dressmaking, gardening, swimming and reading. She had no clue that her uneventful life was soon to be changed drastically.
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As an Activist
In the early 1970s, when Northern Ireland was witnessing a surge in violence, Betty Williams joined a pro-peace campaign headed by a Protestant priest. While she did not play any major role in it, the experience helped her start her own peace movement, a few years later.
On August 10, 1976, an IRA fugitive named Danny Lennon was shot dead by the British police while fleeing in a car near her home on Finaghy Road. With the driver dead, the car lost control, mowing over three children who were out for a walk with their mother.
Williams was driving home with her daughter when the unfortunate incident took place. She first heard the gun shot being fired and when she turned the corner, she saw the mangled bodies of three children. After witnessing this, she resolved to do her part in preventing such deaths.
She saw TV interviews of the dead children’s father, Jackie Maguire, and aunt Mairead Corrigan, who condemned the IRA for the violence. “Only one percent of the population in this state want this slaughter,” Corrigan told BBC before she started sobbing, unable to continue the interview.
Williams grabbed a piece of paper and drove through the Catholic-majority neighborhood of Andersonstown, knocking on every door and asking if they wanted peace and if they would join her in denouncing the violence unleashed by the IRA. She received an overwhelmingly positive response.
As she forayed late into the night, knocking systematically at every door, she found a growing crowd of women joining her. Very soon, around 100 women joined her cause and started collecting signatures and phone numbers.
Williams and her team had gathered 6000 signatures by the next evening. The same evening, she held an impromptu news conference at her home, showing the reporters the signatures of 6000 people who had agreed to join her movement.
During the press conference, she announced that her group was going to hold a peace demonstration at the site of the children’s accident. When the slain children’s aunt, Mairead Corrigan, heard about Williams’s initiative, she invited her to attend the children’s funeral. Later, she also joined the movement as the signatures continued to pour in.
The procession to the funeral’s site, which started from Andersonstown, was attended by hundreds of people. By the time the demonstration reached the cemetery, the numbers had swelled to a few thousands, indicating how horrified the citizens were by this act of violence. That evening, Williams received messages from several important people, who extended their support to her cause.
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On 14 August 1976, Williams and Corrigan formally established the ‘Women for Peace’ organization. On the following Saturday, a huge crowd of around 10,000 women, both Protestants and Catholics, gathered at the site of the accident for a prayer meeting. However, when the crowd started walking towards the cemetery, the trouble began.
The IRA, which had so far been watching the demonstrators silently, lined up on the two sides of the road, forcing the marchers to walk between them. There was a scuffle, and both Williams and Mairead were physically assaulted.
'Women for Peace’ organized an even bigger procession a week later. Around 35,000 marchers participated in the demonstration for peace, and the IRA did not intervene this time, allowing the marchers to proceed without trouble.
A Catholic reporter named Ciaran McKeown joined the group. As his involvement grew, the movement, which was initially called ‘Women for Peace’, began to be known as ‘Community of Peace People’ or simply ‘Peace People’.
The peace initiative taken by Williams and Mairead in the strife-torn Northern Ireland earned them several prizes, including the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize. They also established a magazine called ‘Peace for Peace’, with Ciaran McKeown serving as its editor.
While working for peace, Williams, Mairead and McKeown realized that the children who had taken up guns believed in a violent ideology. Therefore, if they wanted to take guns away from them, they needed to replace them with something else.
They started mobilizing local groups, aiming to provide the youth with entertainment and jobs. However, by early 1978, the enthusiasm for their peace movement began to wane. Moreover, many members began to criticize the trio for accepting honorarium, which allowed them to work full time for the movement.
Williams and Mairead were criticized for keeping a portion of the Nobel Prize money for themselves, although they had given away most of it to the organization. Moreover, the popularity and travel opportunities that both women were receiving started incurring jealousy among ordinary members.
After facing criticism for some time, Williams, Mairead and McKeown resigned from their posts in 1978, giving others a chance to lead the organization. In 1980, Williams fully left the organization.
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In 1986, Williams moved to the USA with her second husband, James T. Perkins, and set up her home in Florida. She continued to work for peace by travelling across the US and preaching about nuclear freeze.
She became a visiting professor at the Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, where she taught political science and history. Concurrently, she also worked towards uniting ethnic and cultural groups, both on campus and in the local community.
In the late 1980s, she started traveling around the world, working for the welfare of children and recording their testimonies of living in unimaginably horrific conditions. In 1992, she established ‘Global Children Studies Center’. In the same year, she was also appointed to the Texas Commission for Children and Youth.
In 1993, she traveled to Thailand as a member of the Nobel peace laureate group. They tried to enter Myanmar in order to protest against the detention of Aung San Suu, but were unsuccessful.
In 1997, she founded ‘World Centers of Compassion for Children International’, which was meant to create a better world for children. She continues to serve as the organization’s president up until now.
After living in the USA for around two decades, Williams returned to her native country Northern Ireland in 2004. In 2006, she joined fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchú, Jody Williams, Mairead Maguire, to found the ‘Nobel Women’s Initiative’.
The ‘Nobel Women’s Initiative’ held its first conference in 2007 and it focused on the conflicts in the Middle East. Since then, they have been continuously campaigning for peace, equality and justice.
Betty Williams is currently a board member of a number of organizations like The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, Institute for Asian Democracy, Pax Natura, PeaceJam Foundation, Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Non-violence, etc. In addition, she is also a member of several organizations working for peace.
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Awards & Achievements
In 1977, Betty Williams became the co-recipient of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Mairead Corrigan, for trying to bring about peace in the strife-torn Northern Ireland. In 1976, she also received the People’s Peace Prize of Norway.
She received the Schweitzer Medallion for Courage, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award and Eleanor Roosevelt Award in 1984.
In 1995, Williams received Rotary Club International’s ‘Paul Harris Fellowship: and Together for Peace Building Award’.
She has won the following awards: Schweitzer Medallion for Courage, Frank Foundation Child Assistance International Award, Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Builders Award, Ischia Peace Award, Italy, Soka Gakkai International Peace and Culture Award, etc.
Williams has received honorary degrees from a number of well-known institution, such as the Yale University, Sienna Heights College, Mount Merry College, Beloit College, The Monmouth College, St. Norbert College and the William Woods University.